For a few years before we were married, my wife owned a small apartment in the old western sector of Berlin.
Just down the road, in the middle-class suburb of Friedenau, was an unassuming red-brick house which I was astonished to learn was the childhood home of one of the monsters of the Third Reich – Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering.
He was the strutting, corpulent Reichsmarschall whose fanatical Nazi zeal was fuelled by an addiction to morphine prescribed as a painkiller for gunshot wounds he sustained in the abortive Beer Hall putsch of 1923.
As one of Hitler’s most trusted deputies, he headed the SA ‘Brownshirts’ and the feared Gestapo secret police before masterminding Germany’s rearmament drive in the 1930s and taking over command of the Luftwaffe as it swept all before it in the invasions of Poland, France and the Low Countries.
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Hitler’s henchman Hermann Goering. As one of Hitler’s most trusted deputies, he headed the SA ‘Brownshirts’ and the feared Gestapo secret police before masterminding Germany’s rearmament drive in the 1930s and taking over command of the Luftwaffe
Could the man who led the German air force in the Battle of Britain and who organised the Holocaust really have been raised in such a dull, normal place in the area where I went shopping?
For the first time it struck me that the Goerings, and other Nazi leaders, were for many Germans just the people next door, the ones you went to school with or met in the pub.
But the more I was to learn about the Goerings, the more extraordinary their story became.
While Hermann was condemning millions to death in the name of National Socialism, his bohemian, Nazi-hating younger brother Albert secured the release of 34 prominent Jews and other political prisoners from the concentration camps and rescued many more from certain death.
He pretended they were to be used as forced labour in his factories – and then allowed them to escape.
As Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, considers the remarkable step of awarding Albert Goering its highest honour by naming him alongside Oscar Schindler, the rescuer of Jews made famous in the film Schindler’s List, as one of the Righteous Among The Nations, I have investigated the brothers’ contrasting and intertwined life stories for Radio 4.
Different paths: Albert Goering. While Hermann was condemning millions to death in the name of National Socialism, his younger brother Albert secured the release of Jews and other prisoners from the concentration camps and rescued many more from certain death
Hermann, born in 1895, and Albert, born two years later, were the sons of Heinrich and Fanny Goering, who, on the surface, appeared rather like the house in Friedenau – stolidly middle-class, a little dull.
Heinrich worked for the German diplomatic service as governor general of the German protectorate in what is now Namibia, and the consul in Haiti.
While he was away, Fanny took a lover, a wealthy doctor and businessman called Hermann von Epenstein, who owned the Friedenau house and who acted as guardian for Hermann and Albert while Heinrich was abroad.
By the 1920s, the brothers were already on widely divergent paths. Hermann was loud, overbearing and ready for action, a highly decorated First World War fighter ace who had commanded the famous squadron created by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.
One final astonishing twist…Albert was a Jew
The Munich beer halls of the post- armistice years were a magnet for disaffected German nationalists. And it was in Munich that Hermann heard a rousing speech by the charismatic failed artist and political activist Adolf Hitler and joined his embryonic Nazi party.
Albert, meanwhile, had spent the war in the mud of the trenches as an unglamorous signal engineer. After the war he enjoyed the kind of life portrayed in the musical Cabaret, with artist and music-hall friends, plenty of wine, good food, parties and women.
He was already on his second marriage when he moved to racy, multicultural Vienna to work with a film company part-owned by two Jewish brothers, Oskar and Kurt Pilzer, who became his friends.
It is no surprise that, given their wildly different lifestyles, the brothers had very little contact for a decade until, in 1938, Albert’s bohemian life came to an end – thanks in part to his brother.
It was then that Hitler mooted the annexation of Austria and dispatched the man who had become his most trusted lieutenant.
Hermann was the key player in imposing Nazi order, bullying Austria’s politicians by telephone, demanding Nazis be given government positions, and finally insisting that German troops should invade.
The Nazi nightmare of arrests, Gestapo swoops and political opponents being led off to the Dachau concentration camp had begun. The Pilzers were among those arrested. And this is where the story of the two Goering brothers takes its first extraordinary twist.
Seven years later, in 1945, Hermann was held in the interrogation rooms at Nuremberg, awaiting trial and his inevitable execution. Albert Goering was also held by interrogators, who felt sure he was not just a witness to his brother’s crimes, but probably a war criminal too.
A symbolic star of David on gates at the memorial to Jews who died in Dachau concentration camp – some saved by Albert were to have been sent there
Then Albert astonished the Allies by writing out by hand a list of 34 people he claimed to have helped escape the Nazis. The Pilzers were at number 24. Dr Kurt Schuschnigg, the former Chancellor of Austria, was also on the list.
So was the Archduke Joseph Ferdinand of the royal Habsburg dynasty.
Albert claimed that his brother Hermann was so triumphant after Austria was annexed, he ‘allowed everyone a wish. My sister and I asked for the release of the old archduke’. Hermann ‘was very embarrassed’ but the next day ‘the arrested Habsburger was free again’.
Albert went on to say that he was saved from the Gestapo and SS – who over time had four warrants out for his immediate arrest – by Hermann himself. ‘As far as he could [Hermann] helped me,’ Albert claimed, adding that when it came to family, Hitler’s deputy ‘had a warm heart’.
Albert’s claims were immediately dismissed by his Allied interrogators as far-fetched. An interrogation report said he was guilty of ‘as clever a piece of rationalisation and whitewash’ as the interrogators had ever seen.
It concluded: ‘Albert Goering’s lack of subtlety is matched only by the bulk of his obese brother.’
But two extraordinary developments helped change their minds.
Kurt Pilzer, who had escaped to the United States, wrote to the Nuremberg prosecutors, pleading Albert’s case. Then a new interrogator arrived, an American called Victor Parker, a fluent German speaker.
Hermann Goering: The strutting, corpulent Reichsmarschall whose fanatical Nazi zeal was fuelled by an addiction to morphine
Nazi defendants (L-R front row) Field Marshall Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (Hitler’s Foreign Minister) and Wilhelm Keitel sit in the dock of their war crimes trial at Nuremberg
He was a Jewish refugee to America and his family had changed their real name, Paschkis. His aunt, Sophie, had converted to Catholicism and married the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, best known for writing The Merry Widow. Lehar had been detained by the Nazis because of his marriage to someone born Jewish.
And by an amazing coincidence, Sophie was number 15 on Albert’s list! Parker spoke to his aunt about how Albert had helped them to leave Austria. Thanks to a most unlikely twist of fate, Albert’s story was validated by one of the men sent to help convict him at Nuremberg.
Yet Albert’s troubles were not over. He had worked as the export manager at Czech car firm Skoda, which had been converted to Nazi war production, and the post-war authorities in Prague wanted him on charges of Nazi collaboration.
Now members of the Czech resistance who worked in the Skoda factory came forward and testified that Albert had helped them undermine the Nazi occupiers, passing on information to the resistance and encouraging acts of sabotage.
Albert, it emerged, had not only lobbied his brother to release individual prisoners from Dachau, but also forged Hermann’s signature on documents that allowed anti-Nazi activists and Jews to escape Hitler’s henchmen.
He took company trucks and drove away inmates as ‘forced labourers’ before parking in secluded areas and allowing them to escape.
The Dachau Concentration Camp, where one brother was condemning millions to death while the other was securing their release
Hermann was convicted of war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunal and cheated the gallows by taking cyanide on the eve of his execution in April 1946. The following year Albert was cleared by a Czech court, but his life was in ruins.
The Goering name didn’t help him. He had four broken marriages, and continued to drink prodigiously, dying in obscurity in 1966, aged 69, his deeds publicly unrecognised.
But now, 50 years after his death, that has begun to change, and historians talk of a ‘Good Goering’.
One, William Hastings Burke, has made a case at Yad Vashem for Albert to receive Israel’s highest honour for a non-Jewish person and be recognised like Schindler as the Righteous Among The Nations. The Righteous are those non-Jews who ‘risked their life, freedom and safety’ to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
And there is one final twist – perhaps the most remarkable in the whole story. Albert’s only daughter, Elizabeth Goering Klasa, who escaped after the war to Peru, has revealed a family secret.
She says that Albert confided in her mother that he was not Hermann’s brother, but his half-brother.
Albert Goering was, by his own account, fathered by his mother’s lover, Hermann von Epenstein. Albert, brother to one of Nazi Germany’s leading monsters, was Jewish: von Epenstein had converted to Catholicism, but was born a Jew.
So the mundane red-brick house down the road from my wife’s Berlin apartment housed two remarkable Germans: one became an egomaniacal Nazi leader, the other was to risk his own life and defy the Nazis as the Good Goering.
Gavin Esler’s The Good Goering will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday at 11am.